‘She’s Gotta Have It’ Season 2: A Strong Voice Overrides Struggling Narratives

The second season of Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” serves as an example of how intention and craft can still overcome a slightly lacking narrative. The first season was a high-energy, sharp update of Spike Lee’s 1986 directorial debut. It successfully expanded the premise of a New York woman seeing several men into an episodic rhapsody about race, gender and gentrification in contemporary America. Lee returns to helm this follow-up, which wanders into the uncharted territory most TV movie adaptations face, namely what to do after you’ve already covered the original storyline.

It is two years since the events of last season and Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) is living with Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera) and her daughter Skylar (Indigo Hubbard-Salk). Following the attention garnered by her “My Name Isn’t” art campaign, Nola is hoping to actually live off of her vocation. It’s a tough proposition these days, as New York City feels the growing wave of gentrification. Affected by the rent hikes is Nola’s former lover Mars (Anthony Ramos), who loses his job after the business is priced out. At first he tries to crash with his sister, who demands he grow up, until she’s evicted from her building as well. Some of Nola’s other former lovers are dealing with their own life hurdles, like Jamie (Lyriq Bent), who has been dumped by his wife Cheryl (Sydney Morton). This drives him to stalk her and leave angst-riven messages. Domestic life isn’t that best for Nola either as Opal grows uncomfortable with her care-free attitude and growing influence over Skylar. But important art community personalities are beginning to take notice of Nola’s work, and soon she is invited to a special retreat to meet major artists and hopefully have her breakthrough.

Great films, like great novels, make for some excellent first seasons of television because a strong story is given a wider space to be told. But once the original idea has been explored the challenge is in keeping it going while not losing its appeal. “She’s Gotta Have It” goes the same route, though in a vastly different genre, as “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Hulu’s Margaret Atwood adaptation covered the whole, famous novel in one season and then decided to simply ponder what happens after the last chapter. Such is the case here, where Spike Lee and his team attempt to find the sequel to the premise of his movie and the show’s first lap. The result is that the initial charm and allure is lost because no longer is Nola being pulled between lovers, no longer is the spirit of female sexual liberation in play. Now it becomes more of a standard struggling artist story. But because Lee is a filmmaker of powerful social commentary, “She’s Gotta Have It” retains a potent voice.

Lee’s trademark style is here, with sequences that turn into dreamy montages, or monologues where politics and historical references are openly injected, though not as subversively as one would expect. If a song is playing over a scene Lee will intercut the album cover. In the season’s opening scene Nola reads from Zora Neal Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Gentrification becomes the main social development hovering over the characters. Mars struggles to mature after facing homelessness, even crashing at Nola’s (but being respectful about their current status) and Clorinda (Margot Bingham) now works as director of community outreach for the brilliantly named Amistad, a company feigning equality while actually pushing out working class people from their neighborhoods. We feel the old Spike Lee fire in scenes where Amistad’s head, a white gentrifier in a nice suit tries to explain to the “locals” what’s good for them as they protest. There’s also an episode that takes place in Puerto Rico where the story is just a necessary tool for Lee to explore the island and comment on its history, as well its recent ill-treatment by the Trump administration.

But unlike Lee films such as “Jungle Fever,” this season of “She’s Gotta Have It” is less interesting when it fully deviates from the social voice. Some of the plotting feels tagged on as necessary filler to keep it at 9 episodes. There’s the whole angle involving Jamie and his angry ex, which adds little to Nola’s story, except for being confronted by Cheryl who tries to slut shame her in public. Life with Opal is not very fun as Opal constantly berates Nola for being silly with Skylar, acting like an actual second mother and “being messy.” Eventually Opal walks out of the relationship, leaving Nola standing alone at Coney Island. It then truly turns into a tale of an artist on the rise as Nola gets an invitation to a retreat at Martha’s Vineyard, where she meets artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Amy Sherald. She also catches the eye of a handsome artist with a smooth demeanor. But the work comes first and she is expected to produce material at the retreat and begins to feel the pressure to deliver. This will all culminate in her work sparking whispers of something explosive and dangerous, but once unveiled it’s not at all that provocative.

Lee has always been a great director when it comes to handling large casts and shaping characters, and we still get many, self-contained moments of striking acting in “She’s Gotta Have It.” Nola and her mother Septima Darling (Joie Lee) have a memorable conversation about balancing life and work, as Septima gets a comeback opportunity when she’s cast in a major stage production. We also catch up with Shemekka (Chyna Layne), still recovering from bad body enhancement surgery and driven to desperation to survive, even if it means collaborating with the police. Everyone is expertly played by the fantastic cast, smoothing over the story’s obvious attempts at finding just what it wants to be about.

“She’s Gotta Have It” works best when we feel Spike Lee commenting on a changing urban landscape, where artists struggle to say something in an environment becoming dominated by corporate interests and where the poor find themselves cornered by gentrification. These are potent themes that shine through the show’s more standard fare. There’s also some rowdy humor from characters like Mars, who always keep their scenes lively. The first season is still much better, but this second round isn’t completely shallow.

She’s Gotta Have It” season 2 begins streaming May 24 on Netflix.